The human brain is a remarkable machine. After all, it’s the only part of our bodies that named itself. It’s resilient, creative, boundless, and utterly extraordinary. One thing it isn’t, however, is rational. No matter how much we might try and convince ourselves that all of our decisions are made from a solid base of logic and reason, that simply isn’t true.
The role of Cognitive Biases
Our brains are confronted by processes called cognitive biases on an hourly basis. Hundreds of them. Every day. Often characterised as ‘systemic patterns of deviation’ from our normal, rational mode of judgement, they can be observed in almost every aspect of our lives.
For example, how would you feel about spending £100 on a night out just after you receive your monthly pay cheque? Would it feel different to spending the last £100 in your bank account on exactly the same night out? This is called the ‘Bottom-Dollar Effect’. It’s an observable phenomenon whereby we feel less satisfied, perhaps even negative, towards a product or experience if it’s associated with running out of money.
How often have you been told that first impressions count? Perhaps you’ve had this thought in your mind as you shake hands at a job interview, or meet a partner’s family for the first time? This is known as the ‘Primary Effect’. It essentially describes our tendency to prioritise, and hold on to, the first piece of information we’re presented with in a situation.
Think back to the last time you unboxed a new phone, did the packaging impress you? If it did, that’s no coincidence. Companies are aware of the Primary Effect and will deliberately strive to make your first experience of their product a positive one, as they know that impression will linger in your brain.
What about the world of work?
Unsurprisingly, cognitive biases are rife within the workplace. Have you ever been tempted to do the bare minimum to secure a sale, rather than going out of your way to find out about every aspect of the client’s requirements? This is called ‘Bounded Rationality’; the tendency to seek ‘satisfactory’, rather than ‘optimal’.
Have you ever worked for a company that, despite overwhelming evidence suggesting it was no longer effective or viable, decided to stick with their current marketing plan because ‘it’s just how we do things’? That’s the ‘Commitment Bias’; the propensity to base future decisions on past actions, even when those thoughts and actions are no longer relevant.
So what’s the point?
Cognitive biases are everywhere. They’re a perfectly normal and intrinsic part of our everyday lives, but that’s not to say we’re powerless in the face of them.
The more we become aware of how our brains function, and the role that these biases play in our decision-making, judgement and thought processes, the more we’re able to influence and manipulate them in our favour.
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